Sunday, January 30, 2011

Government is not the solution...but it's not the problem either--Part I

Ronald Reagan famously observed, "Government is not the solution; it is the problem." He then proceeded to preside over the beginning of a bipartisan effort to dismantle the federal role in American life so that we would experience a new "dawn." This disassembling of government focused on domestic policy while the government role, i.e., expenditures, in military defense expanded. While de-regulation--as it became known--was a clear success in the airline industry, it was destructive in other areas, especially the regulation of the financial industry.

There is a long list of examples of the way in which reducing the regulatory role of the federal government has not improved life but has been destructive: the savings and loan crisis, Enron and the Enron-like corporations looted by their managers, credit card debt over expansion, a speculative housing bubble, the economic meltdown of the Great Recession. There is no better example of this than the bipartisan repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in the closing days of the 2000. This effort to repeal this New Deal regulatory law was supported by Republicans (Phil Gramm) and Democrats (Charles Schumer) and was signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton. Its passage was little noted by the general population but it became the swamp out of which most of the economic woes of the Great Repression slithered.

Glass-Steagall was originally passed to create an unbreachable firewall between banks and investment firms because it had been the entwining of these two entities that had led to the speculative crash of the 1929. By the late nineties, however, this firewall was preventing some powerful organizations from making even more money. The merger of Citibank and Travelers to form Citigroup in 1998 was a clear violation of this regulation but the repeal changed all that. The rest, as they say, is history.

So government is not the problem in financial regulation. It is not the problem in national defense, in education, in health care, in environmental protection, consumer protection. For example, does anyone seriously think that we would be better off in any way if an unfettered market mechanism allocated health care to our citizens? Even a somewhat regulated system had left 40 million Americans outside any effective health care insurance system.

But government is not the answer either. Regulation and rules are not enough by themselves. Rules often create new opportunities for those who want to game the system to get into new mischief. This came home to me several years ago when my youngest son transferred to a new college and ran afoul of NCAA regulations on athletic eligibility. He was told that he should have read the NCAA rule book and thus should have known that he was violating a recently changed, somewhat obscure, rule. This was the occasion for me to see the NCAA rulebook. That is when it struck me, "If rules were the answer, NCAA Division I athletics would be clean as a whistle." The fact that is is not and seemingly never will be points to deeper issue than just creating more rules and better rules to stay ahead of the outlaws.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Transformation Church

This weekend I was in Charlotte visiting Liam, Marcie, and the kids. On Sunday we went to church at Transformation Church. When Marilyn and I were down last April, we went there as well. I was impressed then and still am. It has long been known that you plant a new church by focusing on three aspects: music, preaching, and hospitality. Transformation certainly does all three of these very well. Go here to see Transformation Church website.

Transformation Church Overflow Room
What impressed me, however, was the way in which the pastor, Derwen Gray, has articulated the mission of the church as UPWARD, INWARD, and OUTWARD. The UPWARD dimension speaks to our relationship to God who loves us and reaches toward us to change us in fundamental ways. The INWARD dimension speaks to the way in which we make our response to God's offer of love. It focuses on a healthy regard for our true self as loved by God. The OUTWARD dimension extends us out to the world to announce the good news of Jesus Christ and to work with Jesus in the salvation of the world. Theologians could, and do, come up with sophisticated language and structures to say the same thing without adding anything meaningful for the vast majority of us. You won't find those words in scripture but they capture the essence of the message.

While I have had some familiarity with some congregations that focus on music, preaching and hospitality, I was impressed with Transformation's emphasis on the outward dimension, discipleship to the world. Too often this music, preaching, hospitality results in a comfortable Christianity without the cross. Transformation's approach does not make this mistake. I also noted that they have what they call transformation groups, small groups, that meet in people's homes and are led by trained facilitators. These serve to educate and to deepen commitment.

All in all this is an impressive church from which Catholic parishes could learn much.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Spirituality for Our Times

I just finished reading Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Disciple Who Revealed the Glory of God by Damian Zynda, a friend of mine in Rochester. This a creative approach that seeks to develop a spirituality of conversion which is apt for our post-modern age. She uses Romero's life, the theology of Irenaeus, and the insights of psychotherapy to explicate this spirituality. Many of us know of Oscar Romero and his heroic stand for the ordinary people of El Salvador but few of us know of his life long struggle to respond to the call to discipleship, particularly within his obsessive compulsive personality disorder.

Again and again she makes the point that we are called to respond to the presence of God in our lives exactly as they really are, with all the enormous possibilities of human existence and with all the wounds that inevitably are part of our lives as well. It is surprising how apt the thoughts of Irenaeus--the second century pastoral theologian--are to our contemporary existence.

The final chapter presents her conclusions about a contemporary spirituality of conversion. It might be tempting to just read that chapter but one needs to work through the biography of Romero, the insights of Irenaeus, an understanding of the impact of his diagnosed OCPD, and Romero's spiritual journey, all contained in the first four chapters. Only after that work does the final summary have its full impact.

Following Irenaeus, Zynda views conversion as a process of growth toward full realization of our humanity and autonomy. It is not a one-time event but an ongoing, life-long process of becoming who we already and really are. It is important to understand that this growth and the response to the call to conversion from God takes place within the actual realities of humanity, warts and all. Thus the traditional view of conversion as a movement from sinfulness to holiness is not a helpful or accurate stance. It is a movement toward wholeness and authenticity.

A spirituality that supports such a conversion would be very different from the spirituality that most of us were taught or have heard of. It is not a spirituality built around formal prayers and religious practices but rather around more interior processes. The final two paragraphs summarize her conclusions:

Because it has relevance to postmodern Christians, a spirituality of conversion is a dynamic path to holiness. Formed through personal contemplative payer and communal worship in the liturgy of the Word and Eucharist, an asceticism that promotes solidarity with those who suffer, and the constant discernment of spirits with and among the loving community disciples, a spirituality of conversion transforms disciples into the likeness of the Son of God. Embracing the struggle to be obedient to the grace of conversion, we are, throughout life, nudged deeper into the vision of God and the fullness of our endowed potentials.
Thus, in the fullness of our humanity and divinity, we too reflect, as did Oscar Romero, the glory of God.